Bratton’s Bad Data on Pedestrian Injuries Won’t Get Us to Vision Zero

Yesterday NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said that in 73 percent of crashes in which a pedestrian was struck by a motorist in 2013, the pedestrian was at fault. Bratton presented that figure as an indictment of pedestrian behavior, and the stat was later parroted by the press. But more than anything it speaks to the victim-blaming bias that permeates NYPD traffic enforcement and crash investigations — a major obstacle Bratton will have to overcome to implement Vision Zero.

Commissioner Bratton and Mayor de Blasio at yesterday's Vision Zero event. Image: Clarence Eckerson
Commissioner Bratton and Mayor de Blasio at yesterday’s Vision Zero event. Image: Clarence Eckerson

Here’s what Bratton said at Wednesday’s Vision Zero press conference:

“Last year, pedestrian error — and I point this out — pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions, and 66 percent are directly related to the actions of pedestrians. So while a lot of our focus is on drivers and speed, we also need to work more comprehensively on pedestrian education.”

These numbers came from out of nowhere, and it’s impossible to say what Bratton based them on.

But let’s start with the data we have at our disposal. A tally of NYPD’s monthly crash reports shows there were 14,845 pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths from January through November of last year (citywide crash numbers for December have not yet been released). For those 11 months, pedestrian and cyclist “error/confusion” was coded as a contributing factor in fatal and injury crashes involving 1,092 vehicles. That means only about 7 or 8 percent of pedestrian and cyclist injuries were coded as being the fault of the victim.

Other research has also shown that “pedestrian error” is not the risk factor that Bratton made it out to be. NYC DOT’s landmark 2010 pedestrian safety study, based on records of 7,000 crashes involving pedestrians, found that motorist behavior was the main factor in 78.5 percent of serious pedestrian injuries and fatalities. A 2012 report from Transportation Alternatives found that 60 percent of fatal New York City pedestrian and cyclist crashes with known causes between 1995 and 2009 were the result of motorists breaking traffic laws, according to data from the state Department of Transportation. And NYC DOT data from 2011 revealed that half of pedestrians killed in city crosswalks were crossing with the signal.

So the 73 percent figure doesn’t match up with any known dataset or the robust recent research into the causes of serious pedestrian injuries. Yet Bratton’s quote was aired and repeated by several media outlets, including the New York TimesWABC, and WNYC.

We don’t know where Bratton got his numbers, but we’ve asked NYPD. What we know is that the NYPD unit that creates the reports upon which most crash data is based — the Highway Division — has a record of jumping to conclusions that aren’t supported by the evidence.

This is the unit that, for example, blamed cyclists Rasha Shamoon and Stefanos Tsigrimanis for their own deaths based largely on the word of the drivers who killed them. Shamoon was vindicated by a civil jury, which found the motorist almost completely culpable for the collision. Investigators didn’t visit the Tsigrimanis crash scene for 46 days, but still concluded he blew a stop sign based on threadbare, inconsistent accounts. The crash report relied on the recollections of two drivers, including the one who struck Tsigrimanis, even though they admitted they did not see him until the moment of impact.

As Streetsblog has reported for years, the NYPD crash investigation process is in dire need of reform, and data produced by shoddy procedures should be greeted with skepticism. Then there are those crashes — the vast majority — which are not handled by NYPD’s handful of trained investigators at all. Some 14,000 pedestrians and cyclists are hurt each year, yet the NYPD Collision Investigation Squad takes up only 300 or so cases.

If Bratton believes people are causing their own deaths, there is a real danger his NYPD could focus on the behavior of pedestrians and cyclists — “pedestrian education” — rather than the motorists who are causing harm. That won’t reduce the death toll on city streets.

Whoever gave Bratton the 73 percent number, it comes from bias, rather than fact, and that will have to change if New York City is to achieve Vision Zero.

  • ADN

    Outstanding piece, Brad and Ben.

  • Robert Wright

    What’s infuriating about this idea that vulnerable road users cause their own injuries/deaths is that it flies in the face of everything one knows about human nature. It assumes that someone walking or on a bicycle doesn’t recognize that s/he is more vulnerable than motorists and consequently throws him/herself into motorists’ path.

    It also assumes that relatively invulnerable motorists are more solicitous of the safety of cyclists and/or pedestrians than cyclists/pedestrians are of their own wellbeing.

    None of that sounds even vaguely likely to me.

    Sure enough, there’s plenty of research from around the world on what causes such crashes – and it often seems to light on a figure of around 75 per cent for the proportion of crashes involving vulnerable road users that are the motorist’s fault: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-jersey-city-leaflet-east-new-york.html

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    Thanks! That figure really leaped out when I read it in the NYTimes this morning.

  • Pedestrian Error

    Stats are just what we selectively pick to support our pre-conceived notions. It’s philosophy that matters. Bratton’s and his advisors’ is clearly that motorists have more right to NYC’s urban streets than pedestrians do, and that fast travel matters more than survival.

  • Jaywalker

    If his data turns out to be BS, let’s hope Bratton holds the party who gave him these incorrect facts accountable.

    But judging from his performance at Mitchell Moss’ NYU Panel a few months ago, I think Bratton is looking for an excuse to start a LAPD-style crackdown on jaywalking.

  • J_12

    Even if the assertion was supported by data, which it is not, the data itself is suspect. Who provides information about the conditions leading up to the collision? Generally the driver, and passengers in the vehicle if there are any, are the only first hand sources.

  • Komanoff

    The NYPD pulled the same trick in early 2000, asserting that “cyclist error” was the “primary contributing factor” in three-fourths of recent fatal bicycle crashes with motor vehicles. No basis for that claim was ever given. When we (Right Of Way) looked in depth, we found that *driver* misconduct was the principal cause in 57% of the cases and a contributory factor in 78%. (http://www.rightofway.org/research/cyclists.pdf)

    It’s disheartening to see Bratton starting down this path, especially alongside de Blasio’s extraordinary expression of empathy, solidarity and determination at yesterday’s Vision Zero event.

    Someone with a sharper eye than mine noted a few hours ago that the ratio of those 1,092 ped injuries and deaths that NYPD coded as pedestrian error, to the 14,845 total (I’m reading from the 5th graf of the post) is 7.36%. It’s not possible that whoever handed Bratton the numbers did the same division but inadvertently misplaced the decimal point (and rounded down the result), giving him the 73% “stat” that got featured in the Times … or is it?

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    Even if his #s were right, which they aren’t, we shouldn’t put people in a situation where if they make one mistake they are dead or they killed someone.

  • M to the I

    Well, I believe it. I mean how many of those pedestrians injured or killed were walking around at night WITHOUT A FLASHLIGHT. I mean, jeez, they were just looking to get hit.

  • Ian Turner

    No, he has claimed as fact something which is objectively wrong. It’s not a matter of pre-conceived notions.

  • Robert Wright

    I heard some of them didn’t put their hands up to let the driver see them. If you’re not willing to “do whatever it takes” to stay safe, don’t come crying to the NYPD….

  • NYer

    Agree. I was happy that Bratton showed up to the NYU panel but the actual content of his speech was nothing to cheer about.

  • Walking is Crazy!

    Your facetious post exactly reflects the prevailing attitudes on the Internet. I see posters telling pedestrians to carry flashlights and wear reflective clothing all the time. It shows how deep into car culture our country reached, that an unplanned stroll without “hiking gear” and “reflective clothing” is unimaginable.

  • Ben Kintisch

    I hate when we blame victims for having been hurt. It makes no sense. The ultimate responsibility has to lie with the operators of deadly, heavy cars and trucks.

  • QueensWatcher

    His post arises from a ridiculous pedestrian safety poster that a precinct in Brooklyn was circulating that among other things encouraged pedestrians to not walk at night and when they do they should carry a flashlight. So he was mocking the NYPD.

  • jooltman

    Follow the Dutch lead: If you are in a car, any collision is your fault.

  • SteveVaccaro

    And may I add…perfect photo? The Mayor is definitely looking skeptical.

  • J

    It’s like ignoring the bull in the china shop.

  • That’s not true, except in the case of a child victim.

  • Wow, this is very impressive, independent blogging! Great job, Brad.

  • Perhaps Right of Way and its allies should send Bratton a box of spinach or get bunches of people to show up with spinach next time he speaks:

    “What a difference a decimal point can make. In 1870, German chemist Erich von Wolf was researching the amount of iron in spinach and other green vegetables. When writing up his findings, he accidentally misplaced a decimal point, marking the iron content in spinach ten times greater than in reality.

    While Mr von Wolf actually found out that there are just 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100g serving of spinach, the widely reported number became 35 milligrams and the world turned to spinach in a big way.

    Such was the widespread acceptance of this mistruth that the creators of muscle-packed cartoon character Popeye, aware of spinach’s miraculous health properties, had the idea that Popeye should eat spinach to increase his strength.

    In turn, it is believed that the cartoon character is responsible for boosting consumption of spinach in the USA by a third.”

    http://www.cyance.com/blog/bid/327743/Popeye-spinach-and-a-decimal-place-the-lessons-for-marketing#axzz2qd3fmXYw

  • jooltman

    I think in general, Dutch liability for drivers is much stricter than it is in the US. This article has some interesting case studies:
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2013/11/cycling-v-cars

  • petercow

    There’s no chance he’s going to be able to ticket jaywalkers in NYC, so I’m afraid that with his bullshit numbers, he’ll just say..”See.. i had a plan, but you wouldn’t let me implement it. Don’t blame me.”

  • KeNYC2030

    As Mark Twain (allegedly) said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

  • anon

    My hunch is that Bratton’s statistics come from an analysis of the MV102 forms (Police Accident Report) that the responding officers fill out themselves. I’ve been reading these for over 20 years as an injury attorney representing crash victims. My experience is that they nearly always blame the pedestrian or cyclist victim and contain many demonstrable inaccuracies.

  • j forgash

    I was hit by a car within my first few months in this city. I was walking, with the light, in the cross-walk. My error was in thinking that a car would slow down when the driver saw me. Locals called this “pedestrian error.” Bratton may be using the same criteria.

  • Jennifer Benepe

    We should do our own poll. I was hit three times by cars in NYC, one direct hit, and two “DOORINGS while on my bicycle, all three 100% the drivers’ fault. Here’s where Bratton’s words are slippery: he used the word “contributed,” which does not either mean the cause of, the major cause of, or even a weighted cause of, the crash. Either way, it’s irresponsible and he should support his statement with the data.

  • Jennifer Benepe

    PS Brad, nice job with the stats.

  • Steve O’Neill

    Clearly, the easiest way to stop pedestrian deaths is to outlaw walking completely.

  • Steve O’Neill

    The report that Komanoff mentions above (http://www.rightofway.org/research/cyclists.pdf ) is from a study of MV-104s. (“*driver* misconduct was the principal cause in 57% of the cases and a contributory factor in 78%”)

  • ouchosparks

    Killing a pedestrian in this country merits little-to-no liability, and certainly no shame. It is unAmerican to walk, and if the walker is an inconvenience, bug splat.

  • And now we have Bratton’s follow-through. http://gothamist.com/2014/01/19/cops_allegedly_beat_elderly_man_for.php Remarkable disappointment, but sadly I can’t say I’m terribly surprised.

  • Poleriders

    Always drive as if there is a kid about to run into the street to chase a ball at any moment. Because it can happen. That is how you drive responsibly.

  • It doesn’t really help to throw up our hands and dismiss all stats. There are ways to scrutinize them to get to the truth, and that’s very much needed.

  • Michael Klatsky

    That is what the suburbs chose.

  • fdtutf

    Common sense should have led Bratton to reject those figures out of hand, and consequently he needs to hold himself accountable as well.

  • mf

    right so it’s your fault bc if you just weren’t in the street you wouldn’t have contributed to the accident. /sarcasm

  • Pedestrian Error

    Stats have a useful place – in academic analysis to try to bore down to which countermeasures have merit. Throwing out highly suspicious, unsourced stats that at their best are based on purely subjective reporting (who is “at fault” in a car crash is not a scientific fact) to support deeply flawed policies is not appropriate use of them.

  • Pedestrian Error

    You’re not actually disagreeing with me. I have worked extensively with police and state DOT types. The “stats” they come up with (and often exaggerate well beyond even what their actual deeply flawed numbers show when talking to the media) on who is at fault in crashes are based on subjective assessments of police officers who carry an inherent bias into every traffic investigation. The reality is that we can paint almost any picture we want to with “statistics,” they’re a well-known tool for getting the gullible on board with your assessment of a situation, and they’re particularly problematic when the “stats” are about a subjective assessment such as who is “at fault” for many individual crashes.

  • Pedestrian Error

    The “at fault” assessment is for insurance purposes and, even if it reflected a more pedestrian-friendly worldview, should be left out of developing countermeasures. Focus should be on where the crashes happened and what crash types they were, leading to roadway modifications that will encourage safer driving speeds and convenient, attractive crossing locations.

  • Ian Turner
  • Philip McManus

    I would like to see more evidence before I make a decision. I am a pedestrian, cyclist, driver and I take buses and trains. I lived in New York City all my life. I believe ticket enforcement should be fair and unbiased. How many tickets are issued to each group? Who is held more accountable for their behavior? I believe a non driver must be more careful and cautious since their lives and health are most affected by a crash. I believe distance equals safety. I stay away from objects that might kill me. I wait for vehicles to stop before I proceed. Better safe than sorry. Lets share the road. I believe everyone should have safe, faster commutes not long, dangerous, overcrowded, unreliable roadways, buses and trains. We need to reduce travel times and increase access to more opportunities for better schools, jobs, recreation, shopping and family and health visits.

  • sammy davis jr jr

    A non driver should be more careful? Should the rape victim have dressed more carefully too?

    Distance equals safety? Why don’t we make drivers obey that rule when making turns into crosswalks? 80% of the public space in this city has already been taken over by automobiles. How much farther can we go on these ridiculously narrow sidewalks?

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